Monday, June 24, 2013

Being True

At a recent lecture to a bunch of aspiring writers I was asked what you do when a character "hijacks" a story. She questioned me on what she should do when a minor character, who incidentally had a fabulous moniker that immediately grabbed my attention, began taking over the plot and leading the story in an unintended direction.  Her real complaint, I discovered after a little probing, was that she had been trying to write a SHORT story and this new character was causing it to become longer and, possibly, a novelette*.

I've had other writers tell me of this happening in their own work.  An otherwise insignificant spear carrier steps out of the chorus and begins dominating the stage, stealing the limelight from the lead protagonists.  It should be noted that the character who does this does not have an independent existence but is, in fact, a creation of the writer's mind.  Each writer has dealt with this happenstance in their own way; some going with the flow to see where it would go, others enlarging the story to give the character a place, while still more administer the writer's axe and excise the nasty bastard before he ruins everything!

It's always a danger when a writer tries to shoehorn a story to fit and predetermined plot when the  brain is telling you to change directions. Perhaps the lead characters weren't interesting enough or their relationship was flawed. Whatever the reason an emerging character is always a sign that the story needs to go in a different direction.  Nobody knows from where the stream of consciousness flows to fill the writer's well of ideas and it is only to their peril that they ignore it.  Forcing a story into a strait jacket of defined plot and scrupulously tailored characters will usually kill anything interesting that might occur.

A writer should always let the story tell itself by listening to their inner voice.  Writing a compelling story is an art and not something you can  "engineer."  The good writers are those who speak from the heart, listen to their instincts, and write in an authentic voice.

*For the uninitiated a short story, according to SFWA guidelines, is any story with word count under 7,500.  A novelette is any story with more than 7,500 but less that 17,500 words.  Many magazine editors want short stories to be around 5,000 words or less, for formatting and layout reasons.


Monday, June 17, 2013

"Dressing" Characters

Why do some writers "dress" the viewpoint figure, the protagonist, the antagonist, or other characters in  their stories, in various garb, as if fashion and style were important when it clearly is not?   More to the point, just why do they choose to inflict racial identity, gender, religion, or ethnicity upon their characters when there is no necessity to do so?  Is it just to promote the word count?

Costumes might be relevant should the characters have to adapt to the situation e.g. a time traveller  in a different era, or where there is, later in the story, a bodice to be ripped.  There are other situations but please, dear author, let  us have relevance.

So many times I will see a short story where a description of a character serves no other purpose than to frame the character in the  reader's mind. While such stereotyping might be entertaining to many and amusing to some, if it is not relevant to the character's personality, behavior, or actions, such descriptive passages are meaningless ormolu.  Who gives a damn how character A was dressed, what religion they followed, or their racial identity when the scene involves a lab experiment, rocket ship, or werewolf in the freaking forest?

In the same way "dressing" the character in ethnic or gender identification is meaningless unless it informs the reader of the character's thoughts or actions*. Otherwise it is just an attempt to be "inclusive," which is all very well and good, but only when it has some point in the story. I try not to describe most of my human characters** in my stories so the reader can form their own mental images:  I want an Asian to picture an Asian hero, not some blue-eyed European.

Descriptions of size, shape, and form are acceptable if there is a point. A character can be muscular, tall, or foreboding where such features are pertinent to some point in the story.  You cannot write a romance without getting into such description, but does it matter if the protagonist is black, white, or purple when the sweaty parts start?  I think not.  A good writer needs the reader's imagination to do half the work while describing the activities.

 *I do use gender identifications simply because it's easier to use "he" or "she" instead of some fumbling obfuscation that could take the reader out of the story.  

**As an example, in 1994 I wrote PERSISTENCE without identifying the gender of the narrator.  I've since had readers tell me in no uncertain words that the narrator was "obviously" female, or perhaps "male," depending on their imagining of the story.  I've taken their interpretations as complements.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Why I Write Short

Short stories are the  first thing I read in a magazine.  Always have.  Loved Brown's shorts as a kid but lukewarm otherwise.  Today I prefer a fat anthology of short stories over a long novel, although truthfully, I read both with the same enthusiasm.   This is probably why I've remained focused on the short form for most of my writing "career" - as if that meant more than dogged persistence and efficient use of spare time from working and family.

Economically speaking, writing short stories doesn't make a lot of sense.  The amount of work to conceptualize an idea, devise a credible plot, envision an environment --hell, a Universe!-- and then sweat each paragraph, sentence, and phrase down to its most elegant and economic form, takes a lot of work.  A good 5,000 work short story might be the result of over 30,000 words of draft, and many of those words repeated erasures, changes, and adjustments to an earlier draft. This repeated editing is necessary to get the prose just right, because in a short story every word has weight, every sentence is fraught with meaning, and every phrase has to move the story along.

A novelist, one of those garrulous bastards that churn out successive one hundred thousand word tomes, might deviate from the story to discuss some bit of ephemera, describe an object with exquisite prose, or characterize the protagonist with extensive backstory, each of these consuming pages and pages of words, words, words!  Such luxurious wasting of resources are denied the short story writer who must beat down anything that detracts from the momentum of the plot, that let's the reader's thoughts stray afield. No, the short story writer has to lash the reader ever forward lest they lose focus on the goal, a goal that much be achieved relatively quickly.  An editor once told me that the ideal story starts one microsecond before the epiphany and compresses that as much as possible.  Everything else, she said, is merely giving the reader enough information to understand the conclusion.

So what is the reward for churning out short stories? It certainly isn't the compensation: word rates haven't significantly changed in thirty years and, compared to inflation, have fallen to fractional increments of a penny. But there are other non-economic rewards for writing short. First and foremost,  believe that short stories are the yeast in the science fiction loaf, the little thoughtful bits that move the field forward by introducing modest ideas, variations on a theme, or even ploughing new stylistic or technologic ground.  Those writers who do this consistently and well gain prestige among other writers and fans, even if they never become the GoH at a con.

Truth to tell is that I can't NOT write short stories, not when there are so many fascinating ideas to write about!


Friday, June 7, 2013


My God, I thought I'd be able to stop thinking abut writing for a few weeks as I travelled from the Nebula bash and up the California and Oregon coasts to Portland for a week's visit with family.  Maybe, I hoped, a break from writing would give me a rest from that vague thing that continued to tease me for a time.  Yes sir, a full week of non-creativity would do my mind wonders, said I.  Of course there was SFWA work to be done which left little time for writing anything!

So, at the Nebula banquet a quiet conversation resulted in a promise of a collaboration, quite innocently I assure you.  I suddenly fell back into full creative mode, my brain filled with plot lines, scenes, back stories, etc etc, etc.  instead of mindless vacation thoughts.  Damn!  I couldn't even admire the breathtaking scenery of Oregon's southern coast without generating scenes for my protagonist.

I found myself stealing time to knock an idea out on my iPad, sending a quick message to another writer, and thinking about the new story and the collaboration, the unfinished novel, and the list of unfinished drafts awaiting me at home.  Then I get an acceptance (which is quite nice thank you by much) and following that, a rewrite request. 

I'm going to have to take more vacations.